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5G fixed wireless: How far can it go?

Has the time finally arrived for fixed wireless access (FWA)?

It has long been touted as a major 5G use case. Yet today, despite more than 600 million 5G subs worldwide (as estimated by the Ericsson Mobility Report), there's little sign of it.

Take-up is so minuscule that no one is reporting any numbers.

5G fixed wireless doesn't lack for admirers, however.

The Ericsson study, released today, predicts FWA connections will "show strong growth of 17% annually through 2027." That compares to anticipated wireline broadband growth over the same period of around 4%.

GSMA Intelligence is also an enthusiast. In a recent blog post it described FWA "as one of the most promising 5G use cases," providing "an incremental opportunity to maximize the value of existing network assets."

In the US, an Accenture analysis commissioned by the CTIA argues that 5G FWA can serve as many as 43% of rural households.

Operators are embracing 5G FWA too, we should note, with 57 launching commercial networks, according to Ericsson. And not all of these see FWA as a niche service. Finnish telco DNA says it is its most popular broadband offering.

But how far can 5G-era FWA go? Currently fixed wireless, using either 4G or some other technology, accounts for fewer than 100 million worldwide subscribers.

The challenge for 5G, as for earlier generations, is that wireless doesn't always deliver the best performance or the strongest business case.

Philippines' Globe Telecom is a case in point. GSMA Intelligence lauds it as a "great example" largely because it launched its 5G network two years ago with a FWA service called Air Fiber.


Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on Light Reading.


But two years is a long time, especially when that period includes COVID-19, and we now find that Globe has shifted away from FWA to actual fiber.

Globe's total fixed wireless subs fell 17% sequentially in Q3 while FTTH subs grew 35%, the company said in a filing. Total home broadband revenues grew 39% thanks to "the accelerated digital habits of the Filipinos brought about by the pandemic."

China, the global 5G champion with 450 million users, is also indifferent to the possibilities of fixed wireless. You would think this nation with a rural population of some 530 million and vast sparsely settled regions would be a prime market for FWA, but its home broadband priority is gigabit fiber.

Geography is likely the main reason for limited 5G FWA take-up worldwide. 5G is strong in countries already well-served by fiber. Those markets where operators are likely to grow FWA are still in their early stages.

Ericsson's report points to Latin America and North America as markets where FWA will play a role in closing the digital divide. Africa may also be promising because of the large rural population and the limited alternatives.

5G has the capacity and cost-effectiveness to play a big role in home and enterprise fixed access. Let's see if it can rise to the challenge.

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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